April 5, 2005

We must rethink the discourse on anti-Semitism

The greatest error we can make as critics of social ideas is to extrapolate general conclusions from the words of the loudest, the dumbest, and the most obnoxious.

In her article, ("Anti-Semitism Seems To Be All the Rage in England and the Continent", 4/1/05) Teresa Mia Bejan displays this mistake in a thousand words of stunning enthusiasm. "As disturbing as the reported violence [of the attacks against Jews] is, " she says, "The prevalence of Anti-Semitism in the cultural conscience, not to mention Western Europe's best and brightest, is almost more so."

In writing this small commentary, my intention is not to criticize the theme of Bejan's article (the undeniable existence of Anti-Semitism) but to urge readers to critically examine the current discourse surrounding Anti-Semitism itself, using Bajan's article as an example. Simply put, I argue that current discourse surrounding Anti-Semitism has gone so far astray that it no longer resembles anything remotely relevant to racism, hatred, or even the act of genocide itself. Current dialogue surrounding the theme, which is more concerned with café conversations and street talk, ignores the more salient issues of general bigotry—the inclusive problem—by attempting to create its own special niche within ethnic discourse. I argue that this is a terrible mistake, and that it does nothing to alleviate the current ethnic divisions within our own society.

I know I am not alone on this point. As stated, my prime belief for arguing this comes not from a denial of the existence of Anti-Semitism across the globe, but the way in which those who make fervent cries of unique ethnic affront (Anti-Semitism being only one example) disregard equally—and sometimes far more—sinister acts against those who fall victims to other Anti-isms. The mistake here, I argue, is not in the fact that other issues are being ignored, but the fact that they are implicitly categorized—where no category should ever be—by importance. That in itself is a horrible error.

This argument, however, doesn't begin and end in Western Europe as some would like to suppose. Have you (the hypothetical you) ever taken a stroll on 70th and Cottage Grove? Is it disconcerting? Does it make it make you reconsider your great country's tale of virtue when you know that—from sea to shining sea—the urban story is the same at all ports? Anyone who claims this is not the result of bigotry—equivalent to that in Western Europe towards Jews—is mistaken. I won't give proof or evidence because it's simply not needed—the point only being that we, as Americans—as aloof of our current ethnic situation as we may be, are not clear of the charge of the loudest, the dumbest, and the most obnoxious. Hatred exists within our borders too—in Wal-Mart states and Harvard states alike.

The moment we emphatically specialize our discourse of hatred by ethnicity—any ethnicity—we have done ourselves a terrible disservice. Hatred, after all, does not begin uniquely when one group singles out another. Hatred begins when one group singles itself out with respect to every other group, whatever those groups may be (if you deny this, try imagining a racist who "only hates" one group).

Consequentially, I argue that current discourse of Anti-Semitism that loudly calls attention to itself as a unique, growing phenomenon does nothing to improve the condition of oppressed Jews, Arabs, Blacks, women, etc, etc. The fact is, the phrase "I'm better than you"—our civilization's greatest vice—draws no ethical distinctions outside of its own self-identification, yet it is that feeling which is the root of both Anti-Semitism, Anti-Arabism, Anti-Blackism, and whatever other Anti-isms that those with racist, self-worshiping feelings can create. In sum I only argue this: if one, as a social observer, desires to criticize hate, they should criticize the act of hating itself as applied to all cases, not as something that is nationally unique or special. The world is full of people who hate, and it is inordinately naïve to assume that they won't be well dressed, throwing cocktail parties, or even "European".

The saddest point of all this is that there are those who will call me (a non-Jew, as if it mattered) an Anti-Semite for criticizing the way in which some, like Bejan, talk about Anti-Semitism. If that is true, then I look to the 21st century with the fear of repetition on my brain.